By IAN BEGLEY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Friday, February 8th 2008, 4:00 AM
Jermaine O'Neal remains Knick fan
While most of the Knicks act and talk like they want nothing to do with Isiah Thomas, Pacers forward/center Jermaine O'Neal has made it clear that he would gladly accept a trade to New York.
"I think in this business you got to be willing to believe at some point, if your team struggles you are going to be traded," O'Neal said after the Pacers handed the Knicks their seventh straight loss on Wednesday night. "I would accept it."
O'Neal didn't want to directly address coming to New York out of respect for the Pacers, but said Madison Square Garden was "one of the most desired atmospheres to play in in basketball."
According to O'Neal, the Pacers are in trade talks with several teams and it is no secret that Thomas has tried on several occasions to acquire O'Neal, whom he coached for three seasons in Indiana. O'Neal's high school coach, George Glymph, is on Thomas' staff.
Thomas might try to move Zach Randolph, who last month was the subject of trade talks involving Milwaukee.
"The deal makes a lot of sense to me," one Knicks player said on Wednesday.
Randolph said yesterday that this season - his first as a Knick - has been extremely difficult even compared to his lean years in Portland. Randolph missed the playoffs in his final four seasons with the Blazers.
"Losing is losing," Randolph said after the Knicks practiced yesterday. "It's more (difficult) here with all the distractions, there's a lot of other stuff going on. It makes it that much more difficult to concentrate."
However, Pacers GM Larry Bird may not want to risk acquiring Randolph, who is from nearby Marion, Ind. Also, Bird's strained relationship with Thomas could hurt any chances of the two teams orchestrating a deal.
There is also the question of whether Garden chairman James Dolan would give Thomas authorization to make trades. The Knicks are 14-35 and face the defending champion Spurs (31-16), without injured guard Tony Parker, tonight at the Garden.
O'Neal said the Knicks lacked a leader, which is a void that the six-time All-Star could easily fill, according to Thomas.
"When I was coaching him, I saw those things," Thomas said when asked about O'Neal's leadership qualities. Thomas refused to comment on any conversations he has had with teams about potential trades, but his infatuation with the 6-11 O'Neal is no secret.
"Jermaine is one of my favorite people on Earth," Thomas said. "I think the world of him as a person and a player."
O'Neal, 29, has missed the past 10 games while rehabbing a bone bruise on his left knee, which was surgically repaired over the summer. O'Neal said he initially returned from the injury too early and was "disappointed" that the Pacers announced he would be back on the court in two weeks when he left the lineup on Jan.16 with soreness in the knee.
"I was out there on one leg," said O'Neal, who is averaging 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. "I rushed back, but I won't do that again. . .. I believe anywhere I go, once my knee is back to the level (where) I know I can really dominate, I will get back to that level. Wherever I'm at. Whether it's Indiana, or wherever."